IndyCar: Can we rule out one Alex Palou landing spot?

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar (Photo Credit: Mansfield News Journal)
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar (Photo Credit: Mansfield News Journal) /

The topic of Alex Palou’s future is one of the most discussed silly season topics in recent IndyCar history, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

We have reached the one-year anniversary of the day McLaren almost signed 2021 IndyCar champion Alex Palou, just hours after Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they had picked up a one-year option in his contract to keep him with the team through the 2023 season.

Palou made his intention to leave Chip Ganassi Racing clear, but after a two-month period which involved all kinds of reactions, rumors, and legal battles, it was confirmed that he would be back for a third year behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda in 2023.

The 26-year-old Spaniard did also sign a deal with McLaren to be the official reserve driver for their Formula 1 team, but the role was to be secondary to his IndyCar role. It was not allowed to prevent him from anything IndyCar-related, and Palou remains barred from discussing a 2024 seat with any team other than Chip Ganassi Racing until September.

Speculation, however, has no such restriction, and with Palou leading the IndyCar championship standings by more than two wins at the 2023 season’s halfway point, his decision is arguably the biggest decision facing a pending free agent in the history of the series.

While everybody assumed he would be making the full move to McLaren in 2024 one way or another, the obvious question that needs to be asked is why he would willingly leave a seat in which he would, on paper, be capable of winning the Indy 500 and the IndyCar championship for the next decade.

It’s a good question for the 2021 IndyCar champion. The only obvious answer is Formula 1.

Palou’s management team have been said to be discussing their client with potential suitors in the Formula 1 paddock, and while Palou had every intention of being a full McLaren driver in 2023, these discussions are reportedly happening with teams other than McLaren.

The most obvious landing spot would be AlphaTauri, the Red Bull sister team. Yuki Tsunoda nis not under contract for 2024, and rookie Nyck de Vries has already been replaced by Daniel Ricciardo after a lackluster start to 2023.

An AlphaTauri drive could give Palou the ability to position himself for Sergio Perez’s Red Bull seat come 2025. Palou has a strong relationship with Max Verstappen through their Team Redline virtual racing connection.

Does the fact that this is a talking point all but rule out the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team for Palou, even though that was once seen as the team for which he would be competing in 2023?

It is well worth mentioning the fact that when McLaren announced him as a part of their 2023 team, they did not specify where. Arrow McLaren was not specifically mentioned, even though that is what everyone assumed, since they had an open seat.

His lawyer even put out a statement expressing disappointment that Chip Ganassi Racing “would attempt to keep Alex from an opportunity to compete in Formula 1”, and given the fact that McLaren officially cut ties with Ricciardo shortly thereafter, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps that’s the seat — now Oscar Piastri’s seat — that he had his eyes on.

So was Arrow McLaren ever truly an option?

With Formula 1 still evidently on Palou’s radar, the McLaren Formula 1 team obviously can’t be ignored, though Piastri, who dealt with his own Palou-like situation last summer when he rejected Alpine’s claim that they had signed him for 2023, is under contract through at least 2024. Lando Norris is under contract through 2025.

Unless Norris lands a better opportunity elsewhere before then, and with McLaren’s approval, there are no planned vacancies at the Woking-based team for the foreseeable future, especially amid the team’s recent resurgence.

So at this point, the only reason for Palou to move to Arrow McLaren would be as a stop-gap measure ahead of what would be a possible 2025 Formula 1 seat.

But Palou giving up his ride with IndyCar’s top team just for that slim chance of racing a papaya Formula 1 machine doesn’t make much sense, and that option also doesn’t make a ton of sense from McLaren’s standpoint — and not just because they’d have to let go of Norris or Piastri.

Arrow McLaren aren’t set to take over Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis headquarters until 2025. So while they do want to expand from three to four cars, the odds that that happens in 2024 are slim to none. Palou would likely have to be in a third seat if he joins the team next year.

They would effectively be setting their IndyCar team back, as it would mean they would be forced to cut ties with Felix Rosenqvist. While maybe not the case for Palou, Rosenqvist’s clear desire is to remain in IndyCar for the foreseeable future.

Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi are on long-term deals, but bringing in Palou for just a single season would still put Arrow McLaren in a position where they’d have to bring in two new drivers in 2025 if they do expand.

Could one of them be Rosenqvist? Possibly. But it would be naive to think he wouldn’t end up with another contending IndyCar team if Arrow McLaren drop him post-2023.

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All things considered, Palou to Arrow McLaren might just be the least likely option for the 2024 season, even though it once seemed inevitable.